Understanding Unconscious Denial
Unconscious denial is a special kind of truth distortion. Freud defined it as an ego defense mechanism. And he described it as one of nature’s most primitive and powerful ways of self-protection. You see, life can dish out some incredibly painful experiences. Sometimes these happenings overtax our ability to cope. They can overwhelm us with anxiety or hurt. In short, they introduce into our lives a measure of pain simply too great to bear. To keep us from breaking down emotionally, nature provides us a way to block out overly painful realities. It’s not something we consciously choose to do. Rather, it’s something nature does for us. And, that’s not a bad thing.
A Helpful Example
In my book Character Disturbance, I give an example of unconscious denial (an edited quotation follows):
A woman has been married to a man over 40 years. She has just rushed him to the hospital because, while working in the yard, he began having trouble speaking and looked in some distress. Doctors later tell her he has suffered a stroke that has left him virtually brain dead and will not recover. But every day she is at his bedside, holding his hand and talking to him. Nurses tell her he cannot hear but she talks to him anyway. And they tell her he cannot feel, but she still holds his hand. They tell her he’s not coming back, but for weeks she comes every day to visit.
This woman faces a most painful reality. The love of her life was suddenly taken. And the full impact of this reality hasn’t set in just yet. That’s a good thing. The full impact might easily overwhelm her. So nature takes care of her. She doesn’t deliberately choose to distort reality for personal gain. Nature protects her from full appreciation of the reality until she’s able to cope with it. That’s the way it is with unconscious denial. It’s a psychological state, not a chosen behavior. And it’s a temporary state that nature will terminate after it’s served its purpose. Tactical denial is different – very different. And it’s not such a good thing.
Tactical Denial and Character
We’ve been talking about the “commandments” of good character. And for the past few weeks we’ve been discussing how important it is to have reverence for the truth. Disturbed characters of all types lie frequently and about a lot of things. They don’t revere truth. In fact, they despise it. It can pose major obstacles to their self-serving agendas. And it can stand in the way of the opinion they like to hold of themselves. So, they lie. They can lie just as easily to themselves as they do to others. And they do it consciously and deliberately. More troubling, they sometimes do it with ease.
When character-impaired people do hurtful things, they’re often quick to deny it. But this kind of denial is not the unconscious denial mentioned above. Rather, it’s more of a conscious tactic on their part. They do it primarily to deceive you and to keep from looking bad. And they also do it to avoid the really hard work associated with making a better person of themselves.
I give an example of tactical denial in Character Disturbance (again, an edited quotation follows):
Joe, the class bully strolls up to an unsuspecting classmate in the hallway. He engages in one of his favorite mischievous pastimes: pushing the books out from under her arms, just to watch them fall on the floor. The hall monitor just happens to catch this out of the corner of her eye and sternly hollers: “Joe!” But Joe spreads his arms out wide and with a look of both surprise and confusion innocently asks: “Whaaat?” And he loudly proclaims: “I didn’t do anything!”
Let’s take a hard look at Joe’s “denial.” Could it be a case of unconscious denial? That is, is it possible Joe truly doesn’t realize what he has done? Could nature have intervened to keep him from experiencing a reality far to painful to bear? No, Joe’s denial is different. He knows the truth. But right now he regards it as his mortal enemy. If he admits the truth, he’ll likely face detention hall or even possible suspension. So, he has practical reasons to deny. And if he holds to his denial with passion and conviction he might just make the hall monitor doubt herself. His denial is conscious, deliberate, tactical. (Read more about this and the other major manipulation tactics in In Sheep’s Clothing.)
Dealing with Denial
To deal with denial effectively, you have to correctly identify what type it is. Folks in unconscious denial are most likely sitting on a mountain of pain. It would be cruel to put the harsh truth in their face. But folks who are just trying to deceive or evade responsibility need to be confronted.
Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of problem drinkers claim they had no real problem. This, despite ample in-their-face evidence all around them. And I’ve seen hundreds of emotional users and abusers destroy countless relationships while insisting they were actually decent and caring people. Unfortunately, many professionals saw these folks as in a state of unconscious denial. And they wasted a lot of time, money, and energy trying to nursemaid them out of this so-called denial. That’s why I took pains to cultivate the art of benign confrontation. (For more on this topic see: Learning to Confront Benignly and Effectively.) And I’ll have more to say about how benign confrontation can help foster reverence for the truth in upcoming posts.